Five Days In Girona & Peralada

15 May 2023

Dive into the atmosphere of the Arts Festivals Summit 2023 Peralada / Girona

Rain. Throughout Iberia they had been calling for it for too many months. Without it soon in late April the vineyards and grain fields of Catalonia would shrivel in the coming summer heat. The grapes for Peralada's Cava and rich red Emporda would be dry nuggets like November sloes in Welsh hedges, sharp and wizened.

Rain. It needed something to coax it from the sky - something like a bunch of northern arts people standing outside a fourteenth century convent without umbrellas, waiting for the singers of Cantoria to finish rehearsing motets by Victoria and a couple of naughty ensaladas (the musical form, not the lettuces). Then it could come streaming down with a giggle onto unprepared heads and too thin linen. Very funny, we muttered. Wonderful, cheered our hosts.

Girona complied with the rain dances every evening, just as we were preparing to forsake conference rooms for the terraces by the river or rooftop bars. When we journeyed north-east to Peralada, that fantasy castle in lush gardens inland from the coast that curves up into Occitania, a chill breeze would creep down from the Pyreneese mountains just to remind us that lunch in the sun was not yet to be a lengthy picnic; to the relief of our Chief, trying to cajole us back into the conference room for more serious matters than the excellence of the estate's vintages. She fought against the hedonistic notion that, after a hard winter, nothing except great music is more important than conviviality and wine.

Of course 200 of us proved that it is perfectly possible to combine all four - discussion, conviviality,  fine wine and great music. It just takes a little practice to get the mixture exactly right. After four days most of us reckoned we had achieved it. The talk had united disparate cities, opened the eyes of newcomers to innovative artistic thinking, slapped down the financiers and foundations who were only interested in using the arts for their own purposes, and shown that the festival community is worldwide and has as many young warriors as old sages.

We had filled Girona with hugs and debates, arguments and new ideas (some brilliant, others sensibly left at the bottom of the glass) and had left the citizens mildly baffled. We failed dismally to fit into any convenient boxes. Some dressed up, others dressed down. Some were loud and insistent, others were quiet and reserved their judgements. We were terrible tourists, hopeless at keeping in nicely ordered lines of obedient consumers. As seven year-olds we must all have been little nightmares. I loved it. We were clearly democrats but even then made sure we preserved our right to dissent. There was a surfeit, a positive overflow, of intelligence.

While we were discussing how to revive cities with festivals, and how to help festivals survive and sustain themselves as the world heats and politics threaten, down the road in Barcelona a massive international seafood congress swamped the town. I suspect their discussions covered the important distinctions between shrimps, prawns and langoustines and whether the plural of octopus is octopae, but we were too busy planting a festival forest in Iceland to be bothered by intellectual paella.

In Peralada, the inhabitants of the village were spared the sight of our motley crowd of festival enthusiasts. The buses from Girona scraped through the castle gates with centimetres to spare. As we stood around waiting to be allowed inside the conference room, there was a little innocent betting as to which of the coach drivers would be able to circle in front of the ramparts without reversing. Driver one made it with panache. Driver three lost his nerve quickly and had to make a five point turn. 

Overseeing it all was a magnificent swan on the estate's lake. He glided across the water with his wings arched above his back like a finely sculptured yacht's rigging. We were enchanted. Some wondered whether he was real or a clever mechanical animation placed by the opera company to advertise Lohengrin. But now and again a flick of the tail feathers and the glare of a beady eye proved he was alive and alert. As the day wore on, those who do not speak international swan language thought he was just being decorative, parading his feathers for fun, and they ventured close with phone cameras at the ready, even trespassing onto the grass by the water. This was a mistake. The raised wings were a warning. Under the trees the swan's wife was sitting on her eggs, a vigil that could not be interrupted. Keep away, the wings said, moving between eggs and lenses. When the new Peralada Opera Auditorium is built for the 2024 festival, those eggs will be adolescent cygnets, ready to welcome audiences in safety.

Goodbyes over the final dinner in the Girona HQ hotel was enlivened by a little ceremony of affection and appreciation. We had arrived on St. Jordi's Day, that of Catalonia's patron saint (and England's - though, as a Wales supporter, I am on the side of red dragons), which is celebrated with roses for lovers and families. Each delegate had received a rose as they registered, along with a book of the comic tribulations of fictional interns, Sofie & Carlo. The task was to present the rose to someone we had each come to value especially by the last night. Fresh flowers were available for those who had forgotten to water their roses and did not want to devalue the gift by offering wilted petals. The women on EFA's team did particularly well, getting at least a bunch each. But some of the rest of us were secretly delighted too. From her! Who would have thought she cared!

by Simon Mundy